Opinion: City Councilman’s proposal rolls out the red-tape

This site contains reports, history, articles, photos and opinion pieces. This is very much the latter. 

Every once in a while a project appears before the Planning Board that has a unique set of circumstances that the Board’s guiding bible — known as the Unified Sustainable Development Ordinance — could not have foreseen. For example, a recent project backed onto a very narrow rear alley. The code required that street furniture (e.g. benches) be placed every 50 feet or so along the alley. However, the alley was so narrow that this was impractical; the street furniture had the potential to impede traffic, creating the already hazardous navigation of a narrow alley even more so. The Board dropped this requirement and the project moved forward.

How was the Board able to just drop this requirement? By using a waiver. This tool allows the Board to forego or modify major development requirements so as to eliminate practical difficulties that arise from strict interpretations of the code, so long as the result will not violate the intent of the provision being modified. It’s a common feature of modern code, providing necessary flexibility where the code has failed to adequately account for all circumstances. Waivers cannot – nor should – be used to allow for major modifications. For example, they cannot be used to allow an increase or reduction in a buildings’ height. It is also an ability that should not be used with frequency. Appropriately, the Board does not and has not exercised it often. They have acted with prudence, which is of course while they were chosen for the position. Yet this necessary, even quotidian provision is one that the Councilman from Ward 15 would like to strip from the code.

The Councilman’s ostensible rationale is that dropping the waiver provision would “reduce ambiguity in what is and what is not required of landowners, developers and residents”. Unfortunately, removing a provision intended to handle unforeseeable circumstances does not remove the likelihood of their occurrence. What happens when the Planning Board can’t grant a waiver? The applicant must go to the Zoning Board of Appeals for an area variance. More red-tape — and that’s the last thing this city needs. While this amendment concerns a relatively minor provision, it would herald a return to the dark days before the current planning code, when applicants were forced to appears fore many city boards, sometimes repeatedly, to acquire reams of required variances. So many projects were smothered by these requirements that the the City earned a deserved red-tape reputation.

Under the current code, developers small and large have returned to the city. They’re building shops, market-rate apartments, and affordable housing. Hammers are echoing on Central and Clinton avenues, in Park-South, and throughout downtown. Our new code is working! So let’s not start rolling out the red tape once more.

As the old axiom goes: if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.